FIREFIGHTER FATALITIES: THE PREVENTABLE LOSSES

BY VICTOR STAGNARO

Firefighting has long been recognized as a challenging and physically demanding job. In the past 100 years, technological advances have assisted firefighters in confining and extinguishing fires. Among the areas in which these improvements can be seen are communications, firefighting gear and equipment, aerial ladders, and the speed with which water can reach the seat of a fire. However, despite all the technological advances, with the exception of some sprinklered occupancies, there is still a reliance on firefighters to enter a burning building with a hoseline to extinguish the fire.

Although the technological advances may lead some to believe that firefighters are safer today, the average number of annual firefighter deaths has not gone down significantly. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports that fewer civilian fire fatalities occurred over the past 25 years, from approximately 7,400 citizens in the mid-1970s to about 4,000 in the year 2000. Conversely, firefighter fatalities have been reduced only nominally. In 1978, there were 171 fire deaths; the lowest number of recorded firefighter deaths occurred in 1992, when 75 firefighters lost their lives.1 According to the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), one firefighter dies in the line of duty every 80 hours.2 On October 9, 2005, 101 firefighters from 34 states, who lost their lives in the line of duty in 2004, were remembered at the annual Fallen Firefighters Foundation Memorial Weekend.

Although there has been tangible progress in combating the national fire problem, there has been only limited progress in preventing the loss of firefighters. In fact, with fewer civilian fire fatalities, nearly half the number of reported fires in 2000 compared with 1977, and nearly 10,000 fewer fire-related fire injuries, it could easily be argued that the pendulum has gone against the fire service in terms of firefighter fatalities. With fewer fires and fewer civilian fatalities and injuries, there should be fewer firefighter fatalities. But that is not the case.

In 1970, the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control published a report that was monumental for the fire service. For the first time, a concentrated approach was taken to combat the national fire problem. The report, known as America Burning3, orchestrated sweeping changes in how the fire service educates the public on fire prevention and emphasized code enforcement by way of addressing flammability and fire protection features in buildings. The report and its implemented recommendations overall were extremely good for the country; by implication, firefighters’ lives have been saved because of fewer runs and the reduced number of fires. However, the number of firefighter deaths remains constant.

2004 NFFF SUMMIT4

In March 2004, fire service leaders from across the nation gathered in Tampa, Florida, for a summit hosted by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) in cooperation with the U.S. Fire Administration. The objective was to develop strategies for reducing firefighter fatalities by 25 percent in five years and 50 percent in 10 years. For the first time in fire service history, the fire service began to look within itself to address the need to be rescued from a “tradition” of line-of-duty firefighter injuries and deaths.

The following topics were addressed during the two-day meeting: Structural Firefighting; Vehicles-Fire Apparatus and Personally Owned Vehicles; Training and General Research; Health, Wellness, and Fitness; Reducing Fires; and Wildland Fires.

A number of recommendations for reducing firefighter fatalities were made at the Summit. They have come to be known as the “Everybody Goes Home Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives Program”:

1. Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety, incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability, and personal responsibility.

2. Enhance the personal and organizational accountability for health and safety throughout the fire service.

3. Focus greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical, and planning responsibilities.

4. Empower all firefighters to stop unsafe practices.

5. Develop and implement national standards for training, qualifications, and certification (including regular recertification) that are equally applicable to all firefighters, based on the duties they are expected to perform.

6. Develop and implement national medical and physical fitness standards that are equally applicable to all firefighters, based on the duties they are expected to perform.

7. Create a national research agenda and data collection system that relate to the initiatives.

8. Utilize available technology wherever it can produce higher levels of health and safety.

9. Thoroughly investigate all firefighter fatalities, injuries, and near misses.

10. Ensure that grant programs support the implementation of safe practices and/or mandate safe practices as an eligibility requirement.

11. Develop and champion national standards for emergency response policies and procedures.

12. Develop and champion national protocols for response to violent incidents.

13. Provide firefighters and their families access to counseling and psychological support.

14. Provide public education more resources and champion it as a critical fire and life safety program.

15. Strengthen advocacy for the enforcement of codes and the installation of home fire sprinklers.

16. Make safety a primary consideration in the design of apparatus and equipment.

SAFETY IS EVERYONE’S RESPONSIBILITY

In 1973 the America Burning report had a lasting effect on the fire service. The Firefighter Life Safety Summit has the same potential, but administrators must convince their departments and their elected officials to follow through on these recommendations.

As fire chiefs battle daily internal and external pressures to survive, one element in their daily struggle can easily be lost. They must embrace risk management and strive to reduce what is likely the greatest nemesis facing the fire service, firefighter fatalities.

One place to begin when addressing the issue of firefighter fatalities in a fire department, in addition to reviewing and implementing the Summit recommendations, is to adopt the standards and recognized guidelines pertaining to firefighter safety. They include NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program; NFPA 1582, Standard on Comprehensive Occupational Medical Program for Fire Departments; and NFPA 1561, Standard on Emergency Services Incident Management System.

One of the greatest resources available to the fire service is the experience of many who have had close brushes with death. Gordon Graham of Graham Research Consultants assisted in developing a Web site (www.gordongraham.com) from which fire service members can learn from the close calls of others. Graham quotes Chaytor Mason, one of the great risk managers of the ’60s and ’70s: “The only time you learn from the mistakes of another is when they end in tragedy.” Unfortunately, that is all too often the way the fire service learns its lessons. Every fire code ever adopted was written with the blood of those who died because the fire service did not have the ability to convince lawmakers or lacked the imagination and forethought to see a tragedy coming.

Fire service administrators can begin implementing a program relative to Initiative 9, “Thoroughly investigate all firefighter fatalities, injuries, and near misses,” not only by reviewing the industry standards cited above but also by focusing on the medical aspects pertaining to firefighters. Hiring healthy, physically fit personnel would be a solid first step. Additionally, administrators must develop a wellness and injury prevention program that includes reviewing injuries at various levels throughout the chain of command, including a safety officer who should be making a broad review of injuries throughout the department. This is done to prevent their recurrence. The greatest value of such efforts may be to learn from incidents that result in minor or no injuries.

Firefighter safety, however, is not solely the responsibility of fire chiefs, risk managers, or safety officers. Initiative 2 states: “Enhance the personal and organizational accountability for health and safety throughout the fire service.” As noted in the report released after the Summit: “The most important and fundamental decisions relating to firefighter health and safety are made by individuals …. Irresponsible behavior cannot be tolerated at any level, and no external influence can overpower a failure to accept personal responsibility.” (4) These are powerful words; they have the potential to change a culture cemented into a way of doing business that often winks at destructive behaviors or actions because … that’s just the way we are.

It’s everyone’s job to make sure their fellow crew members, whether supervisors, subordinates, or colleagues, make it home at the end of the day. Also, wellness programs should be expanded to include all departmental functions and areas, such as training, exercise, proper diet/nutrition, and maintaining safe practices.

The irony of this entire issue is that the Summit initiatives are not based on earth-shattering, newly discovered technology or knowledge. “Not very surprisingly, almost none of the material was new,” notes Ronald K. Kanterman, chief of fire protection at Merck & Co., Rahway, New Jersey, who attended the Summit. He cites the facilitator of the first group to report at the Summit: “We know what to do; we just need to do it.”5

Most, if not all, of the information presented was academic and common sense. It included protective strategies such as eating a proper diet, engaging in adequate exercise, getting medical checkups, using seat belts (buckling up), updating fire and building codes, learning about building construction, slowing down on the road when driving, recertifying firefighters in the same way EMTs and medics are recertified, and learning how to protect oneself on the highway. (4)

The initiatives provide a solid platform from which fire chiefs, administrators, and firefighters can promote and ensure firefighter safety. This may necessitate cultural change. For too long, the fire service has bought into the philosophy that it is “acceptable” to lose firefighters in the line of duty because of the inherent dangers of firefighting. Summit participants have declared that it is time to change our culture and expectations.

Dangerous behavior that can result in injuries or deaths most often occurs during an emergency incident. How do you counteract this inclination to disregard safety and caution? The initiatives point to properly identifying the risks and then managing them. Adequate training, proper equipment and knowing how to use it, and organization on the fireground are among the remedies for ensuring safety on the fireground and other emergency scenes. Emergencies are not excuses for firefighters to endanger themselves or others. As the Summit report stresses: “The willingness of firefighters to risk their own lives to save others must never be used as an excuse to take unnecessary risks.” Responders should always consider whether the property they are trying to save is already lost or the victims they are trying to save are already dead.

Since the 2004 Summit, Fire Engineering, in conjunction with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, established the www.everyonegoeshome.com Web site. It lists the 16 initiatives and provides links and resources that can assist anyone from a fire chief to a probationary firefighter to perform their duties in a safer manner.

In June 2005, the first National Firefighter Safety Stand Down was held. According to the IAFC, some 10,000 fire departments participated. The second Stand Down is scheduled for June 21. On this day, all nonemergency activities are suspended, and the focus is on the safety and welfare of personnel.

More than 40 national and international organizations have partnered with the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation in supporting the initiatives. In addition, organizations such as the Florida Fire Chiefs Association and the Pennsylvania State Fire Commission have endorsed the initiatives and have begun to implement to the degree that they can the “Everyone Goes Home” campaign.

• • •

We live in a time of unprecedented progress; information is shared at nearly lightning speed. We can learn from events we witness from our television almost nightly. Within weeks of the tragic fire at The Station nightclub in West Warwick, Rhode Island, that killed 100 patrons, the NFPA enacted new codes requiring automatic sprinklers and crowd management in nightclubs.6 Just as EMS protocols were first initiated through lessons learned a generation ago during the Vietnam War, we must now focus on eliminating firefighter deaths.

For many of our fallen brothers and sisters, it’s too late. However, it’s never too late for us to begin anew. Everyone who puts on a firefighter uniform should be fully committed to performing their duties in a safe and responsible manner. There is no glory in flipping a fire truck or injuring yourself or someone else for the excitement of extinguishing a fire. Those who have sacrificed their lives should serve as reminders that we need to be safer and more responsible because many lives ride on our judgment, attitude, and commitment to safety.

References

1. Comeau, Ed, Action Required to Reduce U.S. Firefighter Fatalities, Fire International, May 1999.

2. OnScene Magazine, International Association of Fire Chiefs, Vol. 18, No.7.

3. America Burning, National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control, 1973.

4. Firefighter Life Safety Summit Initial Report, Federal Emergency Management Agency-National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, April 14, 2004.

5. Kanterman, Ronald, “LODD Summit: It’s Time to Commit to Doing Those Things We Already Know Will Save Firefighters’ Lives,” FireEngineering.com, March 19, 2004.

6. Summary of NFPA code changes since Rhode Island and E2 Nightclub tragedies – http://www.nfpa.org/itemDetail.asp?categoryID=847&itemID=21076&URL=Research%20&%20Reports/Fact%20sheets/Safety%20in%20other%20occupancies/Nightclubs/assembly%20occupancies/Summary%20of%20code%20changes#top/. This article lists a timeline of events leading to the changes.

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